The Sentimental Imperialists 1 15 August 2019.

There’s this interesting book by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (2008).  Weisman asks how long would our massive physical creations—buildings, dams, roads, tunnels—survive if humans were not constantly maintaining them?  He answers Not long at all.  Flooding, erosion, deer, those weeds that sprout through cracks in the sidewalk, would need only decades to begin erasing the human scar on the Earth.  Things that seem unimaginably durable and solid can quickly disappear.

What if we apply the same approach to political institutions?  What if we stopped maintaining them?  It wouldn’t matter much with domestic political traditions and institutions.  Those tend to be the product of long periods of development and bargaining.  They survive both triumph and disaster.  Trying to graft foreign or theoretical arrangements onto a long-existing political tradition isn’t likely to work.[1]  So, “tribes” (local identities) would survive.

But what if you apply the same approach to the cob-web of links between countries in what political scientists like to call an “international system” or “cosmopolitanism”?  There the approach seems more valid, at least at first glance.  Take Asia as an example.

China has grown into the second largest economy in the world.  Its wealth has allowed a massive military build-up and an aggressive posture in the Western Pacific.  Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has challenged the West in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, and in the conduct of democratic elections.  North Korea’s acquisition of advanced missile technology—from whatever source—poses a grave security threat to American forces and American allies in Asia.  Meanwhile a combination of refugee problems with a revolt against the “Eurocrats” of the European Union’s “administrative state” have disabled Europe as a force in international affairs.

That’s why the “Nervous Nigels” and “sissies in striped pants”[2] who populate the diplomatic corps of many nations and of international agencies have been bleating so hard.  Where will many millions of people be without the World Health Organization, the World Agriculture Organization, or the United Nations High Commission on Refugees?  Malaria, malnutrition, and massacres, that’s where.

Normally, many people would grudgingly look to the United States for leadership in crises.  The Trump Administration’s “America First” strategy challenges this reflex.  However, there are real limits on what the United States could accomplish under any administration.  Hong Kong has been a part of China since 1997.  China claims Taiwan.  If it buckles on Hong Kong, then its future with Taiwan may be in doubt.  The Uighurs are Chinese subjects.  Kashmir is a part of India.  North Korea already has been plastered with sanctions for decades without abandoning its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  The Philippines resents the United States and forced the closure of American bases decades ago.  Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton either opposed or backed away from the Obama administration’s “Trans-Pacific Partnership.”  Loathsome person though he may be, Donald Trump isn’t far off the mark in Asia.

[1] This was the position of early 19th Century Conservatives.  You couldn’t make Britain into Prussia and you couldn’t make the Austrian empire into the United States just by writing some documents.  However, the experience of the Third Reich and its adventures proved sufficient to make Germans open to new approaches.  Which proves my point.

[2] The Economist and Franklin D. Roosevelt respectively.

Hong Kong 1 9 August 2019.

Between 1839 and 1842, Britain fought China over the opium trade.  China lost that war and the island of Hong Kong to boot.  Under British rule, Hong Kong became a major port and later a financial center.  Sometime between 1914 and 1945, Britain lost the “Mandate of Heaven.”  In 1997, Britain returned Hong Kong to the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).  However, the agreement hedged about Hong Kong’s status to safeguard its Western-type freedoms and its economic dynamism.   The freedoms included free speech, the right to assemble, and free access to the internet.  None of these rights exist anywhere in the rest of the PRC.  Hong Kong is, in many ways, self-governing.  The return agreement pledged China to respect these terms until 2047.  The common term for this is “One country, two systems.”

Despite the promise to respect the agreement until 2047, many people in Hong Kong believe that the PRC has been slicing the salami for a while now.[1]  Both the legislature and the committee that appoints the chief executive have been slowly packed with local agents of the PRC.  The chief executive, Carrie Lam, is seen as a puppet of Beijing.  The PRC’s organs of state security have begun to operate against dissidents living in Hong Kong.  So, things are starting to look like “One country, one system.”

In February 2019, Carrie Lam, the chief executive, introduced a bill into the legislature.  It would allow the extradition of people accused of crimes to places with which Hong Kong has no extradition treaty.  One of those places, oddly, is the PRC.  Since the PRC’s security services have already kidnapped a number of people from Hong Kong, this bill looked like an attempt to neaten-up that process.

Beginning on 9 June 2019, huge numbers of Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest against the bill.  On 12 June 2019, a few of the demonstrators threw rocks at the police; the police responded with tear gas, pepper spray, and beatings.  Nothing deterred, the demonstrations continued.  On 15 June 2019, Lam said that the extradition bill had been suspended.  She didn’t say that it had been withdrawn entirely.  That didn’t cut it with the demonstrators.  On 16 June 2019, two million of them filled the streets of Hong Kong.  They demand that the bill be formally withdrawn and that Lam resign.

More than just digging-in on the extradition bill, the demonstrators have begun to surface deeper concerns and make more sweeping demands.  It may be that the China-watchers in Hong Kong–whose own futures are on the line (unless they can get a Canadian visa)–have concluded that the PRC is not headed toward any meaningful liberalization under Xi Jinping.[2]  Increasingly, people are demanding what might be seen as a re-negotiation of the 1997 agreement.  They seem to want Hong Kong’s special status to be both perpetual and real.

This shift in the goals of the movement may have alarmed the government in Beijing.  Well it should.  Beijing’s failure to make timely concessions has allowed the movement to grow.  Well, Xi Jinping’s failure to understand the situation has allowed a crisis to occur.

[1] Daniel Victor and Alan Yuhas, “How the Demonstrations in Hong Kong Have Evolved,” NYT, 9 August 2019.

[2] Making deals with authoritarian states in the professed belief that they will move along some pre-ordained path of political development is sometimes wishful thinking.  “Nothing is written.”  This isn’t meant as a swipe at the Obama administration’s deal with Iran, which I still support.  However, John Bolton, not John Hill, is the National Security Advisor.  He has a different take on this issue.  Apparently, so do the people in Hong Kong.

Japan’s Second World War 1.

During the Meiji Restoration, many “samurai” became officers in the new national army.  They and their descendants instilled many samurai beliefs about conduct in the Imperial Japanese Army.  Sakae Oba (1914-1992)[1] did not come from a samurai background.  His father farmed.  The son graduated from a teacher’s academy in 1933, and began working in a school.  Soon he married.  Within a year, however, he applied to be an officer in the army.

The IJA recruited soldiers into locally-based regiments.  Oba became an officer in the 18th Regiment.  The 18th had fought in the Sino-Japanese (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese (1904-1905) wars.  From 1928 on, it did much of its service in China.  In 1931, Japan seized the territory of Manchuria; in 1932, Japanese and Chinese troops fought each other around Shanghai.

In July 1937, Japan launched a major invasion of China proper.  The 18th Regiment engaged in two months of savage fighting.  Oba was promoted to Second Lieutenant in late 1937.  The 18th Regiment then fought in the Japanese campaign in central China.  Possibly, the 18th Regiment took part in the terrible massacres of Chinese civilians that accompanied these operations.[2]  In 1939, he made First Lieutenant. In 1941, he received command of a company.  In 1943, he made Captain.

Japan’s war in China bogged down.  In late 1941, Japan opted for attacks on the Western possessions in the Far East.  The attack on Pearl Harbor, and the conquest of the Philippines, British Malaya and Burma, and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) followed.  By early 1944, many of the large number of troops in China began to move toward the Pacific islands that blocked the American advance on Japan.  In February 1944, an American submarine sank the troop ship carrying the 18th Regiment.  Less than half the regiment survived, but Captain Oba was among them.  The survivors were taken to the island of Saipan.  Rather than being a coral atoll, the island is mountainous and densely forests.  The Japanese saw it as part of a last line of defense against the Americans.  Oba and his men joined the garrison.

Between 15 June 1944 and 9 July, the Americans conquered Saipan.  On 7 July, most of the surviving Japanese soldiers made a “banzai charge,” rather than accept the shame of surrender.  When the attack ended, Marines and soldiers counted 4,300 dead Japanese in front of their lines.  Almost 30,000 Japanese soldiers died on Saipan, as did about 20,000 civilians.

Captain Oba and 45 of his men were among the survivors.  They gathered up several hundred civilians and headed for the woods.  Oba’s intentions appear to have been to preserve the lives of his men and to protect the civilians.  Occasionally, they staged night-raids on American positions, but these may have been chiefly attempts to acquire food and medicine.  Perhaps he had seen enough of massacres and suicides.  Despite determined searches by the Marines, Oba held out until 1 December 1945.

Oba returned to Japan, where he found his wife alive.  After the war, he worked in a department store.

[1] Don Jones, Oba: The Last Samurai (1986).  Haven’t read it; just read about Oba.

[2] These include the Nanjing Incident/Nanking Massacre.  See:  Even before the Japanese atrocities of the Second World War, these events had created in the Western mind a reputation for ferocity and bestial behavior on the part of the Japanese military.

Red Hot China 20 July 2019.

Something I wrote in early 2011, but never posted.

The good news.  China has made extraordinary progress.  Between 1980 and 2010 the Chinese economy grew at an average rate of ten percent per year.  The massive expansion of wealth and comparatively well-paid employment has lifted half a billion people out of poverty in a nation of 1.3 billion people.  China has conquered world markets in all sorts of things.  To take an extreme example, sixty percent of the clothes manufactured in the world are manufactured in China.  Ten years ago a million people graduated from university.  This year six million people graduated.

The bad news.  Progress has come at a cost.  First, China’s economic growth has been driven by exports rather than by an expansion of domestic demand.  On the one hand, this makes China’s economy highly sensitive to down-turns in the world market.  The 2008-2011 recession pushed down Chinese exports by ten percent and forced the closing of 100,000 factories (which involved laying off 30 million people).  Sustained economic growth will depend on a global economic revival.  On the other hand, wages and living standards for most Chinese remain extremely low.

Second, China’s environment has been devastated by rapid industrialization.  China has lots of coal, so it burns it for energy.  Half the rivers are severely polluted.  Drinkable water is running short.  China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air quality.

Third, contemporary China resembles to 19th Century Europe: there are great and obvious disparities of wealth; poverty-stricken peasants flood into raw new cities which are unready to receive them; and an educated class is being created faster than are jobs for them to fill.

What does the future hold?  That is hard to say.  The government responded to the global recession with a stimulus plan substantially larger than the one approved by the United States (“We are all Keynesians now,” as Richard Nixon said, but apparently some are more Keynesian than others).  The government is allowing wages to rise in order to create more domestic demand and to improve living standards.  The government has announced a commitment to spending over $400 billion to develop green technologies by 2020.  At the same time, there is much discontent.[1]

The average Chinese faces a lot of insecurity.  There’s virtually no old-age pensions; the one-child policy has ended up forcing one child to care for two parents and even for four grandparents, but the kids don’t have the means or the time; private schools are much better than the public schools; public health care is lousy; there’s no unemployment insurance; there is no system of farm price supports, so price or harvest fluctuations can devastate the income of peasants.  For all these reasons, the Chinese save—rather than consume–about a third of their after-tax income.  In most countries, about 70 percent of GDP goes to consumption; in China only 36 percent is consumed.

A further problem arises from the enormous profits of the State Owned Enterprises.  These are re-invested, rather than distributed as dividends, as would be the case in most places.  The result is the creation of excess productive capacity while consumer incomes are held down.  This is a prescription for disaster at some point.  One solution would be to either privatize the SOEs or to heavily tax their profits and shift them to consumers through payment or social security systems that reduced their own need to save.[2]

[1] “The cracks in China’s engine,” The Week, 8 October 2010, p. 15.

[2] Nouriel Roubini, “The Confucian Consumer,” Newsweek, 24 January 2011, p. 31.

The Asian Century 7 19 July 2019.

What are the ambitions of contemporary China?  To what extent does Xi Jinping speak for those ambitions?  How do actions reveal ambitions?  How likely is China to attain those ambitions?  That is, how great are Chinese resources and to what extent will China’s actions create counter-vailing pressure?   These are important questions with no crystal-clear answers.[1]  Still, take them in reverse order.

First, China’s tremendous economic transformation in the years since the death of Mao and his system have raised China up into the second largest economy in the world.   On the one hand,[2] this has given China abundant financial resources to deploy.  The “Belt and Road Initiative” is a gigantic infrastructure program.  It is building highways, railroads, pipelines, and ports in that link China with “the Stans,”[3] with South and Southeast Asia, and with the Indian Ocean.  It is building dams and roads in places like Cambodia.  On the other hand, it has given the Chinese an immense, justified pride in themselves and their country.  The 19th Century “of humiliation” is at an end, but the psychological legacy remains powerful.

Second, there are forces that may disrupt the assertion of Chinese power.  On the one hand, the very uneven distribution of the fruits of prosperity, environmental degradation, and pervasive corruption have piled up fuel for a potential fire.  “Never throw a match when it’s dry, son.”[4]  Hoping to avert such a catastrophe, the Communist Party has engaged in “techno-authoritarianism” and old-fashioned prison camps.  Keeping a lid on a boiling pot isn’t the same thing as turning down the heat.  On the other hand, China’s growing presence in East Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia sets off many alarms.  The “Belt and Road Initiative” has expanded China’s influence in the “Stans.” If someone needs to be concerned about China’s expanding influence, it is Russia.  Around the South China Sea, China has aroused concern in other countries like Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan.  Then, there is the Chinese impact on common people.  As one Burmese told a Western journalist: “[The Chinese] smile with their faces, but are crooked in their hearts.”

Third, under Zi Jinping, “China is determined to take its place as a modern world power.”  What does “world power” mean to the Chinese and their leaders?  It is useful to recall the work on American Cold War foreign policy by the historian John Lewis Gaddis.[5]  Gaddis traced the debates between a low-cost “point defense” of vital American interests and a “symmetrical” global opposition to Communism.  The Chinese appear to aim at dominating their peripheral areas, rather than at mounting a global challenge to America.  Can the United States untangle itself from its global commitments—some of them mere legacies of earlier times—in order to defend its economic and security interests in wat is shaping up to be the decisive arena of the new century?

[1] Tom Miller, China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building along the New Silk Road (2017).

[2] President Truman once exclaimed that “What I want is a one-armed economist so that I don’t have to listen to some son-of-a-bitch go ‘on the one hand,…’.”   Unfortunately, reality has forced the habit upon me.

[3] “Stan” is a Persian suffix that means “the land of.”  Commonly, “the Stans” refer to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  All used to be part of Tsarist Russia, and then of the Soviet Union.

[4] Corb Lund:

[5] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Strategy During the Cold War (rev. ed. 2005).

The Asian Century 6 18 July 2019.

Normally, China pursues a policy of self-regarding isolationism.  Britain’s “McCartney Embassy” of 1793 offers a good example.[1]  “Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.”[2]  Occasionally, however, China abandons isolation for engagement with the outer world.  Neither isolation nor engagement offers China an un-mixed blessing.

Take the late 19th Century, for example.  China’s defeats in the Opium Wars led to the infiltration of Christian missionaries into much of the “Heavenly Kingdom.”  Many of Western ideas expounded by the missionaries clashed with widely shared Chinese beliefs and social relationships.  The Chinese proved much like Will Rogers’ minister preaching on sin: “He was agin it.”  Hostility to the enforced contact with the outside world boiled over between 1899 and 1901 in the so-called “Boxer Rebellion.”[3]  Widespread attacks on foreigners and a long siege of the foreign embassies in Beijing resulted in a multi-national invasion.  Western victory over China in the war that followed did not make China more Western.

A century of turmoil in Asia followed.[4]  By the first decade of the 21st Century, once-Marxist China had embarked upon the process of becoming a capitalist behemoth.  This required a renewed encounter with the West and its beliefs.  Chinese students, experts, and exports went abroad; Western investment, experts, and imports came in.  It proved to be a remarkable period of “opening.”

Since the 1990s, in what amounts to a new Boxer Rebellion, the Communist Party has begun to slam the brakes on certain kinds of contact with the outside world and on sources of dissent.  There are about a million Muslims in “vocational schools,” political activism outside the Communist Party is repressed, and a “Great Firewall of China” censors the flow of information and ideas.[5]

The government censors blacklist and block access to sites like Google, foreign social media, and news publications.  At the same time, the pull of the China market is so great that foreign technology companies may accommodate the government’s demands.  The censors also keep watch on China’s own social media platforms because these have a much greater potential to facilitate political activism of the sort that produced Egypt’s Tahrir Square movement.

China’s economic transformation has wreaked havoc with economies and political systems in many countries.[6]  Now it’s “techno-authoritarianism” may serve as a model for aspiring tyrants elsewhere.

There is a rationality to this effort that escapes many Westerners.  China’s economic transformation has been faster and deeper than the equivalent experiences of Western countries.  Much about the experience has been disturbing, even traumatic, for many ordinary Chinese.  The potential for massive unrest in response to that dissatisfaction could overthrow Party leadership and derail China’s transformation.  In case it isn’t obvious, that’s an explanation, not a defense.

[1] See:

[2] See:

[3] See:

[4] OK, that’s something of an understatement.

[5] James Griffiths, The Great Firewall of China (2019).

[6] See: